An Insider’s View of Nixon’s ‘Treason’

Special Report: A recently released oral history by one of President Nixon’s secretive operatives sheds new light on perhaps Nixon’s darkest crime, the sabotaging of Vietnam peace talks so he could win the 1968 election, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Tom Charles Huston, the national security aide assigned by President Richard Nixon to investigate what President Lyndon Johnson knew about why the Vietnam peace talks failed in 1968, concluded that Nixon was personally behind a secret Republican scheme to sabotage those negotiations whose collapse cleared the way to his narrow victory – and to four more years of war.

“Over the years as I’ve studied it, I’ve concluded that there was no doubt that Nixon was – would have been directly involved, that it’s not something that anybody would’ve undertaken on their own,” Huston said in an oral history done for the Nixon presidential library in 2008 and recently released in partially redacted form.

President Richard Nixon addresses the nation about his bombing of Cambodia, April 30, 1969

President Richard Nixon addresses the nation about his bombing of Cambodia, April 30, 1969

Huston, who is best known for the 1970 Huston Plan to expand spying on the anti-Vietnam War movement, said he was assigned the peace-talk investigation after Nixon took office because Nixon was told by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that President Johnson had learned of Nixon’s sabotage through national security wiretaps.

Those wiretaps had revealed that Nixon’s campaign was promising South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu a better deal if he boycotted the Paris peace talks, which Thieu did in the days before the U.S. presidential election in 1968.

“I think clearly there was no doubt that the Nixon campaign was aggressively trying to keep President Thieu from agreeing,” Huston said in his oral history [To see the transcripts, click here and here.]

Johnson’s failure to achieve a breakthrough stalled a late surge by Vice President Hubert Humphrey and enabled Nixon to prevail in one of the closest elections in U.S. history. Nixon then expanded the war with heavier strategic bombing over Indochina and with an invasion of Cambodia before winding down U.S. troop levels by 1973.

In those Nixon years, a million more Vietnamese were estimated to have died along with an additional 20,763 U.S. dead and 111,230 wounded. The war also bitterly divided the United States, often turning parents against their own children.

Hoover’s Double Game

According to Huston, Hoover briefed Nixon on his potential vulnerability regarding Johnson’s wiretap evidence even before Nixon took office. “That goes back to the meeting that Nixon had with Hoover at the Pierre Hotel in New York after the election, at which Nixon made it clear to Hoover that he was going to reappoint him, which is what Hoover wanted.

“But, you know, Hoover was a piece of work. I mean, at the same time that pursuant to instructions from Lyndon Johnson he’s got his agents scurrying all over the damn Southwest, you know, trying to dig up dirt on the vice president-elect [Spiro Agnew for his purported role in the peace-talk sabotage], [Hoover]‘s sitting with the President-elect and telling him that Johnson had bugged his airplane during the ’68 campaign,” a specific claim that was apparently false but something that Nixon appears to have believed.

Faced with uncertainty about exactly what evidence Johnson had, Nixon ordered up a review of what was in the files, including whatever obstacles that the peace talks had encountered, an area that Huston felt required examining the issue of Republican obstruction, including contacts between Nixon campaign operative Anna Chennault and senior South Vietnamese officials.

“I wasn’t really asked specifically to address Chennault, but you couldn’t really look at [Johnson's] bombing halt and the politics of the bombing halt without — at least in my judgment, without looking at what Johnson was looking at,” Huston said. “What Johnson was looking at was this perception that the Nixon campaign was doing whatever it could to sabotage his efforts to achieve a bombing halt.”

Huston found that nearly all the national security files at the White House had been packed up and shipped to the Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas, so Huston began piecing together the material from records recovered from the FBI and other federal agencies. According to the National Archives, Nixon, as the sitting president, would have had relatively easy access to the material shipped to Austin if he had wanted it.

The X-Envelope

But Johnson had taken no chances that Nixon’s team might recover the file containing the evidence on what Johnson called Nixon’s “treason.” As Johnson was leaving the White House in January 1969, he ordered his national security aide Walt Rostow to take that file and keep it in his personal possession. Rostow labeled the file “The X-Envelope,” although it has since become known to Johnson archivists as the “X-File.”

Describing his investigation, Huston said he eventually “got so frustrated … because I knew I wasn’t getting all of the information that would allow me to really understand what had happened in Paris. And so I decided to go out and start bird-dogging on my own,” reaching out to other federal agencies.

Huston said “there is no question” that the Nixon campaign approached senior South Vietnamese officials with promises of a better deal if they stayed away from the Paris peace talks.

“Clearly, [campaign manager John] Mitchell was directly involved. Mitchell was meeting with her [Chennault], and, you know, the question, was the candidate himself directly involved, and, you know, my conclusion is that there is no evidence that I found, nor that anyone else has found that I can determine, that I regard as credible, that would confirm the fact that Nixon was directly involved.

“I think my understanding of the way in which — having been in the ’68 campaign, and my understanding of the way that campaign was run, it’s inconceivable to me that John Mitchell would be running around, you know, passing messages to the South Vietnamese government, et cetera, on his own initiative.”

Though Huston reported to Nixon that the Johnson people apparently lacked a “smoking gun” that personally implicated him in the scheme, the whereabouts of the missing evidence and exactly what it showed remained a pressing concern to Nixon and his inner circle, especially in June 1971 when major American newspapers began publishing the leaked Pentagon Papers. That report revealed the deceptions that had pervaded the Vietnam conflict from its post-World War II origins through 1967, covering mostly Democratic lies.

A Dangerous Sequel

But Nixon knew what few others did, that there was the potential for a devastating sequel, the story of how the Nixon campaign had torpedoed peace talks that could have ended the war. Given the intensity of anti-war sentiment in 1971, such a revelation could have had explosive and unforeseeable consequences, conceivably even impeachment and certainly threatening Nixon’s reelection in 1972.

Huston had come to believe that a detailed report on the failed Paris peace talks, possibly containing the evidence of the Republican sabotage, had ended up at the Brookings Institution, then regarded as a liberal think tank housing many of Nixon’s top critics.

“I send [White House chief of staff H.R. “Bob”] Haldeman a memo and I said, basically, ‘You’re not going to believe this.’ Here I’ve spent all these months, I’ve been chasing all over the God-dang’d government try to get everybody to give me bits and pieces and trying to do this job that you told me to do, and the God-dang’d Brookings Institution is sitting over here with a God-dang’d multi-volume report that I don’t have. And if Brookings can get the damn thing, I don’t see any reason why I can’t get it.”

According to Brookings officials and U.S. government archivists, Huston appears to have been wrong in his conclusions about the existence of such a “multi-volume report” hidden at Brookings, but his memo would have historical repercussions because it became the focus of a frantic Oval Office meeting on June 17, 1971, as Nixon and his top aides were assessing their own exposure as the Pentagon Papers filled the front pages of the New York Times.

Blow the Safe

Nixon summoned Haldeman and national security advisor Henry Kissinger into the Oval Office and – as Nixon’s own recording devices whirred softly – pleaded with them again to locate the missing file. “Do we have it?” Nixon asked Haldeman. “I’ve asked for it. You said you didn’t have it.”

Haldeman: “We can’t find it.”

Kissinger: “We have nothing here, Mr. President.”

Nixon: “Well, damnit, I asked for that because I need it.”

Kissinger: “But Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together.”

Haldeman: “We have a basic history in constructing our own, but there is a file on it.”

Nixon: “Where?”

Haldeman: “Huston swears to God that there’s a file on it and it’s at Brookings.”

Nixon: “Bob? Bob? Now do you remember Huston’s plan [for White House-sponsored break-ins as part of domestic counter-intelligence operations]? Implement it.”

Kissinger: “Now Brookings has no right to have classified documents.”

Nixon: “I want it implemented. … Goddamnit, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

Haldeman: “They may very well have cleaned them by now, but this thing, you need to –“

Kissinger: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Brookings had the files.”

Haldeman: “My point is Johnson knows that those files are around. He doesn’t know for sure that we don’t have them around.”

But Johnson did know that the key file documenting Nixon’s peace-talk sabotage was safely out of Nixon’s reach, entrusted to his former national security advisor Walt Rostow.

Forming the Burglars

On June 30, 1971, Nixon again berated Haldeman about the need to break into Brookings and “take it [the file] out.” Nixon even suggested using former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt to conduct the Brookings break-in.

“You talk to Hunt,” Nixon told Haldeman. “I want the break-in. Hell, they do that. You’re to break into the place, rifle the files, and bring them in. … Just go in and take it. Go in around 8:00 or 9:00 o’clock.”

Haldeman: “Make an inspection of the safe.”

Nixon: “That’s right. You go in to inspect the safe. I mean, clean it up.”

For reasons that remain unclear, it appears that the Brookings break-in never took place – although Brookings officials say an attempted break-in was made – but Nixon’s desperation to locate Johnson’s peace-talk evidence was an important link in the chain of events that led to the creation of Nixon’s burglary unit under Hunt’s supervision. Hunt later oversaw the two Watergate break-ins in May and June of 1972.

While it’s possible that Nixon was still searching for the evidence about his Vietnam-peace sabotage when the Watergate break-ins occurred nearly a year later, it’s generally believed that the burglary was more broadly focused, seeking any information that might have an impact on Nixon’s re-election, either defensively or offensively.

As it turned out, Nixon’s burglars were nabbed inside the Watergate complex during their second break-in at the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972, exactly one year after Nixon’s tirade to Haldeman and Kissinger about the need to blow the safe at the Brookings Institution in pursuit of the missing Vietnam peace-talk file.

Ironically, too, Johnson and Rostow had no intention of exposing Nixon’s dirty secret regarding LBJ’s Vietnam peace talks, presumably for the same reasons that they kept their mouths shut back in 1968, out of a benighted belief that revealing Nixon’s actions might somehow not be “good for the country.” [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

The Scandal Grows

In November 1972, despite the growing scandal over the Watergate break-in, Nixon handily won reelection, crushing Sen. George McGovern, Nixon’s preferred opponent. Nixon then reached out to Johnson seeking his help in squelching Democratic-led investigations of the Watergate affair and slyly noting that Johnson had ordered wiretaps of Nixon’s campaign in 1968.

Johnson reacted angrily to the overture, refusing to cooperate. On Jan. 20, 1973, Nixon was sworn in for his second term. On Jan. 22, 1973, Johnson died of a heart attack.

In the weeks that followed Nixon’s Inauguration and Johnson’s death, the scandal over the Watergate cover-up grew more serious, creeping ever closer to the Oval Office. Meanwhile, Rostow struggled to decide what he should do with “The ‘X’ Envelope.”

On May 14, 1973, in a three-page “memorandum for the record,” Rostow summarized what was in “The ‘X’ Envelope” and provided a chronology for the events in fall 1968. Rostow reflected, too, on what effect LBJ’s public silence then may have had on the unfolding Watergate scandal.

“I am inclined to believe the Republican operation in 1968 relates in two ways to the Watergate affair of 1972,” Rostow wrote. He noted, first, that Nixon’s operatives may have judged that their “enterprise with the South Vietnamese” – in frustrating Johnson’s last-ditch peace initiative – had secured Nixon his narrow margin of victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

“Second, they got away with it,” Rostow wrote. “Despite considerable press commentary after the election, the matter was never investigated fully. Thus, as the same men faced the election in 1972, there was nothing in their previous experience with an operation of doubtful propriety (or, even, legality) to warn them off, and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit – and beyond.” [To read Rostow’s memo, click here, here and here.]

Tie to Watergate

What Rostow didn’t know was that there was a third – and more direct – connection between the missing file and Watergate. Nixon’s fear about the evidence in the file surfacing as a follow-up to the Pentagon Papers was Nixon’s motive for creating Hunt’s burglary team in the first place.

Rostow apparently struggled with what to do with the file for the next month as the Watergate scandal expanded. On June 25, 1973, fired White House counsel John Dean delivered his blockbuster Senate testimony, claiming that Nixon got involved in the cover-up within days of the June 1972 burglary at the Democratic National Committee. Dean also asserted that Watergate was just part of a years-long program of political espionage directed by Nixon’s White House.

The very next day, as headlines of Dean’s testimony filled the nation’s newspapers, Rostow reached his conclusion about what to do with “The ‘X’ Envelope.” In longhand, he wrote a “Top Secret” note which read, “To be opened by the Director, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, not earlier than fifty (50) years from this date June 26, 1973.”

In other words, Rostow intended this missing link of American history to stay missing for another half century. In a typed cover letter to LBJ Library director Harry Middleton, Rostow wrote: “Sealed in the attached envelope is a file President Johnson asked me to hold personally because of its sensitive nature. In case of his death, the material was to be consigned to the LBJ Library under conditions I judged to be appropriate. …

“After fifty years the Director of the LBJ Library (or whomever may inherit his responsibilities, should the administrative structure of the National Archives change) may, alone, open this file. … If he believes the material it contains should not be opened for research [at that time], I would wish him empowered to re-close the file for another fifty years when the procedure outlined above should be repeated.”

Ultimately, however, the LBJ Library didn’t wait that long. After a little more than two decades, on July 22, 1994, the envelope was opened and the archivists began the long process of declassifying the contents.

Yet, by withholding the file on Nixon’s “treason,” Johnson and Rostow allowed for incomplete and distorted histories of the Vietnam War and Watergate to take shape – and for Nixon and his Republican cohorts to escape the full opprobrium that they deserved.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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10 comments on “An Insider’s View of Nixon’s ‘Treason’

  1. Bill on said:

    If this be treason (and I think it is), make the most of it.
    I sent your piece to Thom Hartmann, who talks about this regularly.

  2. bpm@i4link.com on said:

    Keep pounding on Bobbie—a real Woodhead at the Post. Forget about sexy but add
    “selective” in his reporting on Watergate….the continuing mystery in DC.
    Sorry the whole story is still untold. W&B at the Post got the credit later,
    but it wasn’t what was really going on at the Watergate. Down the street at
    another hotel the switchboard, manned by a cross-dressing trannie, was picking
    up multiple lines crossed into the switchboard from other sources tracking the
    Watergate and all the special interest info in many suites….not just the DNC

    What was interesting that was all occurring at the Watergate:

    Multiple groups of sexual services provided at the Watergate….
    B&D, Gay and Cross-Gender rooms, both to attract money clients, as well as spy..
    Selective wire-tapping at Watergate by military & DC Metro Police for COINTEL
    Dupont Circle Escorts with John Dean (Mo Dean)involvement……
    Porn shops near Watergate & Columbia Apts where Bernstein looked for Bestiality
    Gay Lawyers working for CREEP secretly handling White House Gay relations……
    Hoover’s most secret files taken to Mark Felt’s basement that disappeared……
    Nixon’s “secret of all secrets” that Woodward couldn’t reveal/couldn’t print…

    The June week is special: it’s the 42th anniversary of WATERGATE….which
    preceded the strange death of J.Edgar Hoover…and the Nixon terror campaign.

    Move ahead from JFK programs to the upcoming 42th on Watergate conspiracy. But,
    look at the timeline approaching:

    MAY 2, 1972 J. Edgar Hoover dies; within days Pres Nixon rushes to get Hoover’s
    secret files on 10,000+ people and events
    MAY 4 W. Mark Felt (#3 FBI man) spirits most prominent files to his house
    MAY 28 1st DNC Watergate break-in authorized
    June 12 Magruder directs Liddy to mount 2nd DNC Break-in
    June 17 Burglars arrested…..Watergate investigation starts

    In between our timeline, we discover other mysterious groups wiretapping and
    surveying the Watergate Hotel complex. A prominent Call-girl ring working DC,
    a series of rooms for B&D, Military intelligence, Metro Police COINTEL. All this
    came together to form Watergate? A trap is set to catch the unexpecting buglers
    and into the web they walk. Door locks are taped open and mysteriously reset.

    Mark Felt secretly becomes “Deep Throat” to keep the bumbling Washington Post on
    target….only problem no one knew how big the problem was. Sides are chosen as
    History evolves. Little secrets lead to bigger secrets…but none have come up
    with the enchilada of SECRETS. Follow the “money”…but to the Washington Post
    this means nothing.

    What was Nixon willing to keep secret…even if he gave up the presidency?
    Why to his chief aid–Haldaman–was recorded words “Bay of Pigs” so telling on
    Nixon? H.R. knew it was code for something—JFK, Dallas, coup in USA?

    How does Howard Hughes become the trigger; how does Nixon smuggle cold-hard
    cash into the White House via Chopper1 from off-shore. How does the FBI know
    the bills are secretly marked/recorded by Las Vegas drop men. How do all the
    safes in the White House stuffed with marked bills become traceable in DC.
    What is Howard Hughes wanting for Nixon? What did the DNC–Larry O’Brien–have
    that Nixon wanted bad enough to commit a crime to retrieve?

    Remember, Deep Throat keep telling Woodhead to follow the money….that is the
    serial numbers. Nixon catches on….and tries the have the money re-laundered
    off-shore by goodfriend BB Rebozo…who makes a mistake by adding too much to
    the stash. Mark Felt plays up the DT alias…even though Woodhead has several
    candidates proving leads…including Naval Intel (his old bosses). The public
    will believe that DT dies with Mark Felt.

    The crossed-in switchboard kept hearing the codeword GEMSTONE (files) building
    on Nixon. Before Nixon can get Hoover’s treasure trove…they are spirited to
    Felt’s basement where the CIA splits the files they wanted away from the FBI.
    Hoover’s best secrets (est at 100,000pg) are refiled where FOIA can not track.

    How does Howard Hunt’s wife CIA wife die in Chicago air crash….and have WH
    black bag men swarming the crash scene to retrieve $100′s thousands in payoff
    money destined to cities throughout USA. Why, within days, Nixon appoints new
    directors of FAA, NTSB and crash scene agencies to cover-up baggage money.

    Of course, no one checks to see that Woodward worked in the Navy as a spy. He
    conversed with spies during Watergate….and he wrote what was expected of a
    spy agent. His partner was a real reporter/writer, but Bobbie knew how to game
    the storyline, smooze his bosses, and continue living/writing into the future.

    The above was sent to Rem Reimer (USAToday) on the occassion of Watergate garage
    being torn down. I wanted Rem’s interest in pitching more Watergate material. I have
    locate of last Nixon Secratary who lived at Columbia Plaza across the st Watergate.
    She also worked for Henry the K transcribing all his secret phone calls before Nixon
    job offer. Thanks for all your work on the topic…….

    • Joe Tedesky on said:

      bpm, that’s some great reading…with due respect, you should write screenplays.

  3. Roger Stone on said:

    One major problem with Parry’s narrative. LBJ had no concessions whatsoever from the North Vietnamese. The phony “bombing halt” was a naked attempt to elect Humphrey cloaked in ‘national security”. The idea that the war would have ended is absurd. The North Vietnamese had no intention of a negotiated settlement –and said so.LBJ was merely outmaneuvered by the greatest pol of them all. After all LBJ stole the presidency once from Nixon in 1960 as voter fraud in Texas exceeded Illinois. I lay this out in greater detail in my new book “Nixon’s Secrets” -now available on Amazon

  4. Bruce on said:

    And about Bush/Reagan TREASON v. US/Carter on Iran hostages? No statute of limitation on this capital crime; and perp Poppy along with victim Jimmie are Still ALIVE! Well … We’re WAITING!!

  5. Joe Tedesky on said:

    My question is; what did Nixon have on LBJ? In order for LBJ not to go after Nixon raises my submissions. LBJ’s refusal to work with Nixon sounds as though LBJ was saying, enough is enough, no more!

    Last question; doesn’t it get your goat in regards to the time limits assigned all these type documents? We citizens are truly left clueless when it should matter!

    • Joe Tedesky on said:

      raises my suspicions

      • Anonymous on said:

        What Nixon had on LBJ was likely proof of his foreknowledge and participation in the removal of his predecessor, our beloved 35th president … who was pulling us out of vietnam, ending the cold war (combining the race to the moon w/the soviets to emphasize cooperation instead of killing each other) and open to normalizing relations w/cuba (castro was willing to give back seized property). The plotters had to know LBJ would go along/cover them.

  6. Verneoz on said:

    Interesting insight by the ex-Nixon aide. My question on another related matter is about John Kerry’s covert trip to Paris to secretly meet with the North Vietnamese negotiators. This was after he completed his Navy service (though still in the Naval Reserve) and was “throwing away” his combat ribbons (his story). I would like to know what discharge he received after his Navy Reserve obligation was completed. Remember, he said he would publicize his DD-214 discharge form during his 2004 presidential campaign, but has never done so. I suspect that is because his discharge was other than honorable based upon his secret meetings with the North Vietnamese, which why he has never allowed public access to his DD-214. It is a public accessible document for every other serviceman of the “peasant class.”

    • Eliza on said:

      John Kerry is obviously still on the Protected Species list.

      Were we allowed access to reality, we would need no fiction.